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The History of Mardi Gras

Hundred and hundreds of years ago, the followers of the Catholic religion in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and in fact the practice spread to France , Spain , and all the Catholic countries in Europe . Then as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese began to take control of the Americas and other parts of the world, they brought with them their tradition of celebrating carnival.

The Carnival season spans between Christmas and Lent. It officially begins January 6th (the twelfth night) on the day the Wise Men are said to have reached Bethlehem and it officially ends the day before Ash Wednesday (Mardi Gras) when Lent begins. In French, Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” and is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday. But Mardi Gras is also commonly used to refer to the whole Carnival season, especially the final frenzied two weeks when the most celebrations occur. Even though Mardi Gras is technically only one day these days it is interchangeable with the term Carnival.

During the period of Carnival in Europe everything was done in excess, the streets were thronged with people intent on partying and carousing, singing dancing, and playing games all while dressed in costume and wearing a mask while others threw elite invitation only masquerade balls. Dressing in costume was also very common and done to hide the identity of the revelers. In Venice the most common costume (the bautta) was composed of a black silk hood, a lace cape, a voluminous cloak (the tabarro), and a three-cornered or tri-corn hat, and a white mask that completely covered the wearers face. The wearing of masks at the balls, in the parades and on the street has evolved with Mardi Gras. In the late nineteenth century, general street masking was seen as a diversion of poor people and African Americans. The reputations of women who disguised themselves on Mardi Gras were questioned. Today masking is widely practiced and enjoyed. A mask and costume allow a masker to transcend his or her everyday life and construct a new self along with a lot of other people doing the same thing — a large part of the magic and power of Carnival.

Contrary to the impression that you might get from viewing mass media coverage, Mardi Gras in New Orleans doesn't take place primarily on Bourbon Street nor does it consist mostly of drunken revelry and indecent exposure in exchange for cheap beads. Not that there isn't nudity and strong drink overflowing the French Quarter's best known street during Mardi Gras — it's just not the focus of the event for most participants although many of the traditional Mardi Gras celebrations are centered there. The majority of the historic parades don't even include Bourbon Street in their routes. Entire extended families stake out prime spots hours in advance — often the same location every year for generations — along each parade route in order to have an up close look at the passing floats and marching clubs and to collect as many 'throws' as possible. Strings of beads can be seen hanging from the branches of trees on Mardi Gras parade routes throughout New Orleans at any time of year. Apparently some throws missed their mark.

Mardi Gras is a time for families to celebrate and spend time together. Many thousands of King cakes, decorated in the official Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold — representing justice, faith and power — are devoured each year at Mardi Gras parties. Parades are planned as much as a year or more in advance by Mardi Gras Krewes who also hold elaborate balls and parties where their King, Queen and other Royalty are announced for the year. The greatest honor is to be named Rex, King of Carnival — public recognition of prominent standing in the New Orleans community.

Some balls are stylized and formal, complete with tableaux performances and royal marches, while others more closely resemble large dinner/dance parties. One party is even held in the Superdome.

Carnival Balls during Mardi Gras are so popular that New Orleans is now one of the country's largest markets for formal wear. Tuxedos and floor-length evening gowns are required attire at many of the most exclusive balls.

New Orleans ' Mardi Gras may be the best known celebration of its kind in the U.S. but it's not the only one. In Louisiana cities and towns including Lafayette, Lake Charles and New Iberia follow the New Orleans example of parades and balls in their Carnival celebrations.

Other communities in Louisiana that have celebrated Mardi Gras the longest practice the courir du Mardi Gras, or house-to-house begging rituals where ingredients for a large communal gumbo are collected throughout the countryside and later shared at an evening party in town.

In many parts of the world, where Catholic Europeans set up colonies and entered into the slave trade, Carnival took root. Brazil , once a Portuguese colony, is famous for its Carnival, as is Mardi Gras in Louisiana (where African-Americans mixed with French settlers and Native Americans). Carnival celebrations are now found throughout the Caribbean in Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada, Dominica, Haiti, Cuba, St. Thomas, St. Marten; in Central and South America in Belize, Panama, Brazil; and in large cities in Canada and the U.S. where Caribbean people have settled, including Brooklyn, Miami, and Toronto. Even San Francisco has a Carnival!

NewYorkCostumes.com helps bring the fun and joy of celebrating Mardi Gras with our extensive Venetian mask collection, beads, and costumes to your parade, masquerade ball, and general revelry.

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